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Can Nature Help Curb Climate Change?

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Can Nature Help Curb Climate Change?
Restored marshlands are photographed at the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve on Feb. 16, 2017, in Hayward, Calif. MediaNews Group / Bay Area News / Getty Images

By Amanda Paulson

Just off Highway 880 at the edge of Hayward, the cityscape changes abruptly. Businesses and parking lots give way to large swaths of pickle grass and pools of water stretching out to the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay.

On a recent sunny, windy March day – just before COVID-19 sent the Bay Area into lockdown – Dave Halsing stood on the trails at Eden Landing Ecological Reserve and pointed out what used to be old industrial salt ponds. He noted how they're gradually being restored into a rich mosaic of tidal wetlands and other ecosystems in the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project.



Little by little, he explains, over 15,000 acres of salt ponds – largely ecological dead zones that had been transferred from industrial companies to the state – are being brought back to functional ecosystems. They provide important habitat for species like the Western snowy plover and California least tern, add recreational trails for Bay Area residents, and provide flood protection for the San Francisco Bay – a needed adaptation in an era of rising seas. "It's inspiring but challenging," says Mr. Halsing, the executive project manager.

The work to restore the Bay Area's tidal marshes is just one example of a strategy that has been gaining attention in the past few years from climate change experts. Often described as "nature-based climate solutions," this strategy encompasses a wide range of conservation and restoration approaches involving trees, mangroves, soil, and marshlands.

Many current projects – like the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project – have locally targeted goals: improved habitat for species or resilience to climate change-related events like hurricanes, floods, or fire. But investing in such approaches at a large scale has another potential benefit, too, say experts: harnessing the natural ability of trees, plants, and soil to store carbon.

"Nature figured out how to solve the toxic carbon dioxide problem 3 billion years ago when it invented photosynthesis, and we're trying to invent similar processes now to solve carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So why not use nature," explains Peter Ellis, a forest carbon scientist with The Nature Conservancy, who co-authored a landmark study in 2017 showing that natural climate solutions could accomplish about one-third of the mitigation work required in the next decade to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

Could Planting One Trillion Trees Actually Work?

Those promoting natural climate solutions emphasize that it's just one piece of a puzzle that also requires a major shift away from fossil fuels and carbon-based energy. But many experts are seeing these natural solutions as low-hanging fruit that have yet to be tapped at a large scale.

In January, the World Economic Forum launched the ambitious One Trillion Trees initiative, with the goal of planting and conserving 1 trillion trees around the globe in the coming decade. Even President Donald Trump signed on.

The initiative has received some criticism, even among climate activists, who worry it's overly simplistic, takes emphasis off of the energy shift that needs to happen, and will encourage poorly conceived projects that might perpetuate other environmental issues.

And some climate experts have argued that the claims made by natural-solutions proponents in general are lofty and overly optimistic – that they couldn't come close to reducing carbon dioxide at the magnitude some studies have found.

But those debates, ultimately, are unproductive, says James Mulligan, a senior associate in the World Resources Institute's food, forests, and water program. Climate solutions, he notes, aren't a zero-sum game. Nature-based solutions won't ever be enough on their own, says Mr. Mulligan, but they have some big upsides, particularly that most are relatively low cost, some have more bipartisan appeal, and many are "win-win," with none of the "losers" that can be a byproduct of other strategies.

"The question for me is: would this help? And the answer is yes," says Mr. Mulligan. "Do I think we can restore a trillion trees to the planet? Probably not. ... In the U.S., our analysis shows we could restore 60 billion trees to the American landscape." That, he says, would be a "tall order," but would remove about a half a gigaton of CO2 per year.

"That's a meaningful wedge," he says. "And that's just one nature-based solution."

Protection Before Planting?

All trees – and all nature-based solutions – aren't created equal. And many advocates stress that it makes sense to focus on the ecosystems with the most to offer, or the methods that yield the biggest dividends.

"We need to protect first, to hold the line," says Mr. Ellis of The Nature Conservancy, explaining that he views good management of existing ecosystems as being even more important than restoration.

Certain ecosystems, like mangroves and peatlands, are of vital importance to conserve, says Will Turner, senior vice president of global strategies for Conservation International. In those ecosystems, the soil stores so much carbon that losing much more of it in coming years would be devastating, he says.

But to Dr. Turner, conservation and restoration are two sides of a coin, both necessary. Protecting critical ecosystems like tropical forests and mangroves that are being destroyed at a steady rate is crucial in terms of reducing current emissions, he says. But removing carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere is also necessary, if there is any hope of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

"We have a long way to go before we have any technology that is capable of removing CO2 from the atmosphere at scale except trees," says Dr. Turner. "We'd be foolish not to invest incredibly heavily in regrowing forests."

Despite all the potential of natural climate solutions, most of the examples being tried so far are at a relatively small scale.

WRI's plan for 60 billion trees planted in the U.S. over the next 20 years, Mr. Mulligan notes, would require about $4 billion a year in federal subsidies. But many of these efforts are "happening at the pace and scale of the conservation sector," he says. And that figure, while relatively modest in terms of government spending, is far beyond what the nonprofit community can handle.

Dr. Turner, of Conservation International, agrees. What the conservation community has done well, he says, is shown how these projects can work, how technology can be used to monitor and verify emissions reductions, and how financial mechanisms can allow governments or corporations to invest in these strategies.

Discovering an Ecosystem in Every Backyard

Meanwhile, part of the beauty of nature-based solutions, Dr. Turner says, is that – while some may certainly have more payoff than others in terms of climate mitigation – "there is something that can happen anywhere. Every community has an option to protect a forest or grow a forest or protect a grassland, or to better manage grazing lands so you can get greater carbon stored in the soil."

And many of those solutions – like the marsh restoration taking place in the San Francisco Bay – offer significant local benefits that go far beyond potential emissions reduction: habitat for endangered species, cleaner air and water, recreation opportunities for residents, flood risk mitigation at a time of rising seas.

In the Bay Area, emissions mitigation isn't a real driver of the restoration work, and the carbon market for wetlands isn't as robust as that for forests. But that doesn't mean those benefits don't exist, says Letitia Grenier, co-director of the Resilient Landscapes Program for the San Francisco Estuary Institute.

In her role at the institute, Dr. Grenier looks for creative ways to harness the natural benefits of ecosystems in ways that work for both people and nature – and they are plentiful, she says.

"One of the things climate change has shown us is that we live in ecosystems," says Dr. Grenier. "Not only do we impact ecosystems, but our ecosystem impacts us." In many instances, she says, when she looks at, say, a large watershed, the system is essentially broken. Too many discordant elements have been introduced.

"Suddenly, our system is not working for us," says Dr. Grenier. "Climate change is creating the realization of that, and the opportunity to fix it."

This story originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

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The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.